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U.S. History textbooks have their fair share of tall tales about Native Americans, magic and curses, too, writes Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota.

Moya-Smith: J.K. Rowling Has Got Nothing on U.S. History Textbook Fiction

Simon Moya-Smith

“What’s your take on this whole J.K. Rowling ‘History of Magic in North America’ debacle?” he asked.

“Well,” I said, having another quaff of black tea, “somewhere, right now, some fat, surly bastard is sinking deeper into his Lazy Boy, Dorito crumbs blanketing his chest, still blaming ‘those goddamn Indians for that goddamn curse they put on the Redskins long ago.’”

Pausing for a moment, he responds: “What the hell are you talking about?”

“I’m saying American society hasn’t evolved. Its conception of us and our spiritualities remains seriously antiquated. People all across this fading country still believe Native Americans cast curses, heal with magic potions … I’m saying there’s very little difference between what a 3rd Grade teacher will fleece to students in November about Native American spirituality, and what J.K. Rowling scribbled about Native Americans and magic.”

11 A.M. MARCH 9, 2016, DENVER, COLORADO – It’s unseasonably warm today, just another incontrovertible sign that some form of life is dying somewhere. … But we’re not talking about brutal environmental destruction, or fracking, something Hillary Clinton supports. No. Today, we talk prejudicial language.

J.K. Rowling, the author and creator of the massively successful “Harry Potter” series, is currently facing a barrage of criticism from Native Americans and allies who argue her latest collection of stories, “History of Magic in North America,” is the most recent example of, yet again, whites taking from indigenous peoples.

And I employ the word “latest” because cultural appropriation happens all the time. ALL the time. Even as I look out the window of this coffee joint, into the parking lot, there’s a sedan just there with a massive, untraditionally ornate dream catcher [are those chicken feathers?] dangling from the rear view mirror.

“Siri, why do non-Native Americans hang dream catchers from their rearview mirror? Is it for napping on their lunch break? Jeezus, are they LIVING in their car!?”

“I don't think I understand, Simon,” she, the mechanical helper, responds.

Neither do I, Siri. Neither do I.

But I digress.

I recall writing a research paper while in the 3rd Grade at Gallatin Elementary in Downey, California, on Hernan Cortes, the land- and gold-horny Spanish slave-owning invader. I remember the assignment because I kept the paper. In it, I regurgitated what my teacher taught me: that Indians healed themselves “with magic.”


OK. So far we’ve got the fat, surly bastard blaming an Indian curse for his team’s consistent failures, and a teacher saying Indians used magic.

Curse. Magic.

‘Merica enough for you yet?

Around the same time that I was writing that putrid research paper, circa 1992, I was also learning in some manner about “God-fearing Christians” and Manifest Destiny and “intrepid settlers escaping religious persecution, tilling the soil,” and all that awful early American colonialist bullshit. But you know what I didn’t read or hear then which I still don’t read and hear today? … That Christians can cast curses, too.

You don’t hear that shit. You don’t hear someone saying, “That damn Christian curse!” … Well you may hear me bark that whenever Westward Expansion is the topic of conversation, but in general you don’t hear people blaming a Christian curse for anything. ANYTHING.

You also never hear about a Christian practicing magic. The logic here is that if they’re truly Christian they don’t dabble in magic. 

They dabble in “miracles.”

Miracle. Positive language. The word doesn’t have a negative connotation to it in the least. “Curse,” however, yeah. That’s some dark shit.

And why can’t Christians practice magic, too? Are you telling me it isn’t a pretty good magic trick to witness a cripple summersault his way across the church aisle after 30 years of living in a wheelchair? I’d call that magic – bogus magic, but, hey, some would call it magic, right? How about Native American shape-shifting? If a 290-pound, 6-foot-3-inch tall Indian can squeeze himself down to the size of a gerbil I’d say that’s a pretty fucking good magic trick, wouldn’t you?

Here’s the kicker, which is an imperative one to note: Saying a Native American is capable of casting a curse or spell demonizes us while at once exalting Christianity for its alleged “miracles.” But let’s play fair. If a Native American is capable of magic and casting curses and spells, well then so are Christians and Muslims and Jews and every other religion, because you know what? It’s all based on faith. The belief of something with no empirical, demonstrable, visible evidence. In any sense, today, in the 21st century, people – not just the fanatical sports asshole who blames Native Americans for a curse we allegedly cast on his favorite racist team with its racist name – continue to blindly associate Native Americans with curses and magic.

What matters here, folks, in this debate over J.K. Rowling’s latest work is the language society uses – the language that is still taught to kids in schools today about Native Americans and our spiritualities.

Think about it: How in the living hell can a child differentiate alleged fact from fiction if schools continue to teach students that Native Americans practiced magic? Note I used the past tense of ‘practice.’ There are very few lessons in grade schools that provide any information on contemporary Native American societies. Super sad, but super true.

And let me leave you with this, home skillet:

Twitter turns 10-years-old this month. Facebook is 12-years-old. Social media, then, is prepubescent. It’s still trying to figure out why the hell hair is growing down there. But it’s through this peach-fuzzy platform that people are only now learning that Native Americans ARE STILL ALIVE. Seriously. Previous to the ubiquity of social media, propelled by the proliferation of the Web, people thought Indians were either dead or living in teepees. Ask any bona fide Indian and they’ll tell you they’ve be subjected to some asinine query concerning where they live, and if they are REALLY an Indian. Lucky for us, thanks to Twitter, Instagram, etc., these curious Q&A sessions are quickly becoming blunders of the past.

But do you know what else social media has done? It has provided the Native American voice to the non-Native American, and at once it has revealed to them that the U.S. education system is largely full of shit, that they have been lied to the majority of their lives concerning indigenous peoples, and that, in fact, Native Americans ARE NOT casting spells, we ARE NOT living in teepees, and that white people actually drink far, FAR, more than we do. Avada kedavra to that stereotype, muggle.

So it’s up to you: You can read J.K. Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America,” or a U.S. History textbook. Both illustrate Native Americans as magical creatures. Just make sure your kids know which has the most fiction … probably the U.S. history text. Cheers.

Madly ranting, always, -Simon

Simon Moya-Smith

Simon Moya-Smith, Oglala Lakota, is the Culture Editor at Indian Country Today. Follow him @simonmoyasmith.

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Juliet's picture
Submitted by Juliet on
The sad thing is the unwitting hypocrisy of the 'Indian (sic) curse' crowd: magic was widely practiced throughout 'Christian' Europe. Folk magic, ceremonial magic, cursing, and so on. It was performed in a Christian context (can't have Satanism without God), sometimes by clergy who thundered from the pulpit Sunday morning and then headed for the coven in the afternoon, or by common people trying to cure warts or fever (or cause trouble for a hated neighbor). In the case of Native Americans (and other non-Europeans), it seems to me that the conquerors' refusal to acknowledge the legitimacy of non-Christian religions meant they inevitably saw indigenous religious rites and healing practices as 'magic'. They prayed to God and used assorted remedies to treat illness and injury, but when non-Christians did essentially the same things, their religious beliefs prevented them from seeing anything other than devil-worship, magic, and superstition. Gah!